Some years ago, Al Akin boarded Willie Nelson’s tour bus at Chautauqua Institution to chat.
“Not too many police officers get a chance to get on my tour bus there, Mr. Al,” Nelson told Akin.
But Akin, now 66, is no average police officer, and spent time talking with the guitar-wielding legend; during Nelson’s stay, Akin even tracked him down at the Chautauqua Golf Club about 20 minutes before he was supposed to perform on the Amphitheater stage.
As the Institution’s chief of police for 41 years, Akin has served through at least 10 major renovations to the Amphitheater complex, five Institution presidents’ administrations, countless performances and lectures, policy changes and challenges. Akin is set to retire this fall, and the Institution will transition current Director of Campus Security and Safety and former Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace into the chief role.
“You prepare for the worst, and hope for and present yourself the best,” Akin said. “That’s what this whole job’s about: preparing for the unknown, preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best.”
The Akin family has lived in the Western New York region since as early as 1806, when Matthew Prendergast and his wife, Abigail Akin, moved from Pittstown, New York, to the west side of Chautauqua Lake. Around 1890, Al Akin’s great-grandfather moved to Chautauqua, making the county the family’s longtime home. Now, the Institution is a kind of home as well; Al Akin’s former wife, Tena Dills, serves as the Institution’s benefits specialist, and their son, Adam Akin, serves as the Chautauqua Volunteer Fire Department’s fire chief.
Describing Chautauqua as a “place all its own,” Akin reflected on his more than four decades of service to the Institution and growing up near Chautauqua Lake — a lake he hopes to see more of in retirement.
Akin worked for the navigation unit of the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office in the 1970s, during his summers between college semesters. Upon his 1978 graduation from Alfred University and completion of coursework at the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Academy, Akin was hired as Chautauqua Institution’s chief of police that year. During his career, Akin said the nature of police work, and security work in general, has “changed dramatically.”
“I remember the old guard, the generation before me, wearing breeches and knee-high police boots, but nobody was carrying an assault weapon, or wearing bulletproof vests or SWAT gear,” Akin said. “I look at it as a sad statement of a society where we’re having to react to that type of thing.”
More frequent and intense violence, Akin said, “is a strong signal that social values have really gone south,” citing the El Paso, Texas, mass shooting on Aug. 3; the Dayton, Ohio, shooting on Aug. 4; and Chicago shootings in the last month.
Akin himself as been instrumental in “saving so many people and properties” at Chautauqua, according to John Shedd, the Institution’s vice president of campus planning and operations. Shedd, who has worked with Akin in varying capacities since 2011, said Akin is often one of the first officers to respond to calls on the grounds in cases of fires and other emergencies.
Akin’s national service includes traveling to New York City in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, to assist in search and rescue efforts. This fall, he’s been invited to place a wreathe on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Oct. 20. And in all situations — whether local emergencies, national crises or talking with Chautauquans on benches and brick walks — communities are at the core.
“Community service is what the job is all about — always has been,” Akin said. “Community service and community responsibility is the basis for everything. You can’t demand respect from people unless you show respect, too.”
To best serve the Chautauqua community, Akin said he has fought for updated medical equipment over the years, including defibrillators in police cars in the 1980s, a medical car transformed from then-Institution President Daniel Bratton’s former vehicle and snow tires for police vehicles. Akin said he is proud of the Institution’s increased dedication to providing emergency medical assistance on the grounds, as well as the teams of people he has worked with.
Gerace, who started as Chautauqua’s director of campus security and safety in January, described working with Akin as a “blessing.” Gerace has known Akin since his own beginnings in law enforcement, the two men attending Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Academy at the same time in 1978.
Starting out as a summer security officer at the Institution around the time Akin was hired as chief of police, Gerace was then hired by the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office in 1979, after graduating from the Sheriff’s Academy; he served as county sheriff from 1995 until 2018.
As Gerace prepares to head the Institution’s police, he said he has been doing “a tremendous amount of listening, learning and asking questions,” working closely with Akin, police officers and Chautauquans.
“Al has been so gracious, and he is a wealth of knowledge,” Gerace said. “He has an unbelievable memory for people and things and places, so it’s been a great relationship as I’m learning and fitting into the new position.”
With Akin’s particular dedication to decreasing the turnover rate of seasonal security employees, Gerace said Akin has been able to foster a more long-term culture of employment among Chautauqua’s police officers by attracting highly qualified candidates and retaining them from season to season.
In his time as sheriff, Gerace said he often joked with Akin: “Thanks for training these people, because we’re going to hire them away from you.”
Akin has worked closely with Shedd and consultants hired by the Institution to work through recommendations for Chautauqua’s security master plan; in those efforts, Shedd said, Akin has been especially helpful in bringing a Chautauquan’s perspective to the conversation. And Akin’s service is about more than his uniform and law enforcement experience — Akin “embodies Chautauqua.”
“Al has been an incredible contributor to this community in more ways than just being a police officer,” Shedd said. “He loves people, and is just a warm human being; but he could probably take you down in a second if he had to.”
As far as the police chief’s role as a servant of and leader in the Chautauqua community, Gerace said “you have to be a heck of an ambassador,” and Akin has been “a perfect fit.”
Though he tries to fit in a round of golf at the Chautauqua Golf Club every so often, Akin said he’s never had a true summer vacation in 40 years. He looks forward to that seasonal break.
“I’ve still got to find something fun to do,” Akin said.